Has Scotland got the bottle for a deposit return scheme?

This piece was originally published in Environment Journal in May 2016 and was written when I was Campaign Director for 'Have You Got The Bottle?,' a campaign comprised of a strategic alliance made up of dozens of partners from the retail, food and drink, local authority, NGO and environmental campaigning sectors. In September 2017, the Scottish Government announced it would introduce the UK's first national deposit return system.

Deposit return systems – where people purchasing a drink pay a small deposit and get it back when they return the empty container – can be established either by national or devolved governments. Over three dozen such systems work well around the world.

What’s interesting to consider is that in the current environment of budget cuts and strain on local services, local government may have the greatest interest in deposit return. It’s local councils who run the kerbside recycling which deposit return complements, who empty street bins – many of them filled empty drinks cans and bottles – and who pick up litter, so much of which in Scotland and other places without deposit return is empty drinks containers. And it’s local councillors who hear complaints about litter from their constituents.

It is no surprise then to see some of the strongest pressure to introduce deposit return coming from local councillors and officials. In 2014, councils across New South Wales lobbied for deposit return, calculating it would save them up to $62m a year in recycling costs alone. The New South Wales administration has now committed to introduce deposits by July 2017. In Catalonia, it was estimated that deposit return would save municipalities between €12m and €33m a yearcurrently spent collecting waste. Here in Scotland, research commissioned by the Scottish Government calculated that deposit return would save its 32 local authorities £13m annually.

Momentum is building. A campaign called Have You Got the Bottle? was launched in September 2015 to persuade Scottish ministers to bring in a deposit return system. Led by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland along with more than two dozen partners from the business, recycling and charity sectors, the campaign now represents over 300,000 people in Scotland.

The evidence is clear and Scotland’s local authorities, starting with Aberdeenshire and Midlothian, have begun to press Scottish Government ministers to introduce a deposit return system so they can benefit.

Councillor Ian Baxter, who spearheaded a unanimous, pro-deposit return vote by Midlothian Council, said, ‘Due to an oversupply of recyclable materials in the market, councils are currently paying companies to take recyclables – in Midlothian’s case around £15 per tonne. Removing materials from kerbside recycling would take some of the strain off local services.’

Deposit return is not just about environmentalism or even about meeting recycling targets. Councils are increasingly understanding that it’s about cold, hard cash. It’s about identifying ways to deliver local services more efficiently and sustainably to stretch shrinking local government budgets as far as possible.

It is pretty clear that deposit return successfully reduces litter: deposit return typically sees cans, bottles and other drinks containers hit return rates of over 90%, and in some places a staggering 99% are recycled. For those responsible for cleaning up the mess of litter, this is an extraordinary win.

The impact of deposit return on street bin collection could also be substantial. One local authority estimate we’ve seen suggests that 30-40% of the contents of their bins, by volume, is empty cans and bottles. When measuring such things, volume is as key as weight because it backs up what we all know – that bins get very full with cans and bottles.

We know from the many deposit return systems around the world that systems can be designed to best suit local context, infrastructure and people. Scottish local authorities are starting to get involved in the discussion, so they can play a key role in designing an efficient, effective deposit return system for Scotland. They are interested in reducing litter, improving recycling rates and reducing the volume of household and street bin waste they collect. It’s good news for local councils, as well as a good story.

 

It is not just Scotland that’s looking at deposit return. International momentum continues to grow for an approach that’s hardly new, but still effective. The first recorded deposit system in the world was introduced in 1799 by an Irish drinks company, while Sweden introduced the first legislation requiring deposits a century later. Deposit return systems are effective and embedded as the norm from Fiji to Finland. Lithuania was the most recent country to adopt deposits, starting in February this year. Queensland is expected to follow New South Wales in 2018, joining existing systems in the Northern Territories and South Australia.

Here in Scotland we know the Scottish Government has long been interested. Deposit return pilots were in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto and the pilots provided learning that can inform a nation-wide system. The 2009 Climate Change Act already makes provision to introduce deposit return, along with bringing in the powers for a carrier bag charge, introduced successfully in 2014.

It seems unlikely the next Scottish Government, whatever its makeup, will be able to ignore the pressure from local government, small businesses and the recycling industry for long. Of the five political parties sitting in the last Scottish Parliament, three made explicit reference to supporting deposit return in their party manifestos ahead of the May 2016 Scottish election.

There’s no reason why moving to deposit return in Scotland should prove any less successful than it has elsewhere. Take Norway, which has an extremely effective system, operated by industry. Scotland has roughly the same size population and a similar mix of urban and rural communities, including remote islands. Last year their national system operator, Infinitum, reported return rates of 95.4% for bottles and 96.6% for cans. Who wouldn’t want to see those kind of results in Scotland and anywhere else? Particularly when it means introducing a system that can be easy for citizens to use and saved local authorities money?